Tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets of Homs yesterday as Arab League observers visited the central protest hub after dozens of people were killed in 24 hours of a crackdown on dissent.
Activists said the military pulled its tanks back from one district ahead of the Arab League team’s arrival, only to hide them inside government zones from where they could be redeployed within minutes.
SANA state news agency reported, meanwhile, that saboteurs blew up a gas pipeline in Homs Province, where Syria’s regime has for months been trying to crush dissent and mutinous soldiers.
“About 30,000 opponents of the regime of [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad are holding a sit-in in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood, in the center of Homs,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The demonstration was to denounce the “crimes of the regime” against its people, the Britain-based organization said in a statement.
The demonstrators appeared to have been emboldened by the presence of a team of Arab League observers headed by veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi.
“Until now, they have been very cooperative,” al-Dabi said by telephone before holding talks with Homs Governor Ghassan Abdel Al.
Syria’s Dunia television reported that the observers also visited the Bab Sebaa neighborhood of Homs, where they “assessed the damage carried out by terrorist groups.”
“They also met with relatives of martyrs and a person who had been abducted” by these groups, said Dunia, which is close to the regime, adding that many people decried the “conspiracy against Syria” to the monitors.
The observers are also scheduled to travel to two other protest hubs — the central city of Hama and Idlib in the northwest, close to the border with Turkey, Dunia added, without giving a timetable.
Ahead of the observers’ arrival in Homs, the army pulled back heavy armor from the Baba Amro neighborhood of the city, scene of much of the violence, the observatory said.
Eleven tanks pulled out at about 7am, its chairman, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
The observatory said, however, that armored military vehicles, including tanks and troop carriers had “repositioned inside the government centers in Baba Amro, Brazil Street and Al-Inshaatt in Homs.”
It cited an activist as saying on Facebook that “it only takes over five minutes” for the vehicles to return.
The observatory said the withdrawal was part of the regime’s “deception” and showed its attempt to “deny the crystal clear facts” that Syrians were trying to “regain power, freedom and dignity” in a popular revolt.
The observer mission is part of an Arab League plan endorsed by Syria on Nov. 2 that calls for the withdrawal of security forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.
Since signing the deal, the Syrian regime has been accused of intensifying a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests, which have shown no signs of abating since they erupted in mid-March.
The leader of opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghaliun, urged UN and Arab League intervention “to put an end to this tragedy,” and he called on the UN Security Council to “adopt the Arab League’s plan and ensure that it is applied.”
“It is better if the UN Security Council takes this [Arab League] plan, adopts and provides the means for its application,” Ghaliun said. “That would give it more force.”